Monday, April 17, 2017

Interesting Visit

The wise old man was napping on our side porch when we got home from church Sunday. “Happy Resurrection Day,” he said, standing to greet us. My wife had prepared ham, potato salad and barbecue beans and the three of us feasted. After lunch, he said, “Well, Dan, I got a little nap before lunch, so I am ready for a walk. Let’s go look at the magnolia tree.” That huge tree, planted in 1839, fascinated him. He walked all around under it, looking up. When he was satisfied, he said, “Would you like to sit on the Royston log house back porch and visit awhile?” Of course, I said yes.

Half reclining with his back against the log wall, he cut a tiny piece from a tobacco plug and placed it in his cheek. “Did y’all have a good church meeting this morning, Dan?” I told him all about it and he listened intently. “You know, Dan, I have been thinking about Easter. You know that passage in Micah 6 that says the Lord requires justice, mercy and humility?” I told him I did remember. “Well, Jesus exemplified each one of those qualities.”

He went on to explain that justice was a reciprocal concept in scripture. He said we should be fair to others if we want fair treatment ourselves. He further said that God’s sense of justice was much different from man’s. As evidence, he cited the crucifixion—satisfying God’s just requirements through an event that seems so unjust to us. “By his death,” he said, “we get life. How is that fair by human standards? Judging someone else guarantees that we will get the same kind of judgment from God.”

The wise old man leaned forward to spit through a crack in the floor and continued. He explained that mercy was reciprocal as well. Jesus said merciful people get mercy in return. He also explained that the scriptures are clear about forgiveness. He said we should forgive others to receive forgiveness ourselves. “Jesus said that just after he taught the Lord’s prayer.”

Finally, he explained that humility gains elevation. I do not remember all the examples he gave, but the one that stuck with me was that the ultimate humility was coming from heavenly mansions to lowly life on this planet to be betrayed, denied and unjustly tortured to death. But, for the joy set before him, he endured it. Seems like he said his joy was in ransoming the likes of us to be with him forever.”

“That will preach,” I said. “Well, Dan, I did not mean to get preachy. I just wanted to let you know I have been thinking about the reciprocal nature of our faith. Open rewards come from secret deeds.”

“Sir,” I said, “where have you been and where are you going. “I do not have much of a plan for my journey from here. I have a girlfriend in Doyline and I may go stay at her lake house for a spell. I have been to Quito and Havana. When I came back up here, I lived under the bridge in Texarkana until this morning. I caught a ride with an Episcopal priest who looked like Vincent Price.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Siblings and Accents

The recent “national siblings day” led me to take stock of my spread-out family. I have a 96-year-old big brother Stanley, who lives in Atlanta. He flew 50 missions in a B-17 in WWII. Now a retired colonel, Stanley sings made-up songs all day and up into the night. Amazingly, the lyrics often rhyme and have varying pitches and tones, most of them with substantial country influence. As a young man, he and my sister Gloria, a few years younger than he, sang with The Sunshine Boys on stage and radio in northern Louisiana. My brother Curtis, just a few years older than I, used to join their act. He had a cute lisp and would run on stage while they were performing crying, “I can’t see; I can’t see.”  They would ask, “What’s wrong, Curtis,” and he would reply, “I got my eyes shut.”

Curtis followed in Stanley’s military piloting footsteps, but, unfortunately, as an Air Force lieutenant, he was killed in a B-47 crash in Lockburn, Ohio in 1960. I was also in the Air Force at the time and flew home from Germany on emergency leave to be at the funeral.

Gloria fudged on her age and went into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) not long after our father’s death and a failed marriage she entered much too hastily and quite young. You see, Gloria was only 14 when our father died. Mother was a poverty- and grief-stricken widow, pregnant with me. Curtis was only five. She made a good soldier and learned some stenographic skills that sustained her throughout her life. She died in 2004.

She did not feel like moving back to the glorious southland after her enlistment was over, so she got a clerical job in the Boston, Massachusetts water company. When I was eight, Mother and I took a trip up to Boston to visit her. She had a cold water flat near Beacon Street. Boston was like another country with an almost foreign language. People said “cah” for “car,” “Bahston” for “Boston” and they pronounced the word “water” very clippingly, as if they were afraid the word would hurt their lips. It was even stranger out in Common Park where the squirrels would come sit on your knee and beg for peanuts and the pigeons were not scared of people. What surprised me most was that Gloria not only understood the language up there but she could speak it. When she moved back south, it took her awhile to speak normally again.

I vowed that I would avoid living up north and that if I had to move there I would never change my accent. I ate those words down in south Florida, where most of the inhabitants are from the northeast. After just a year of working at a university down there, I started speaking more rapidly and saying “Aye” for “I.” When I lived in Ohio, I kind of used a midwestern tone while out shopping so folks wouldn’t say, “Aye big your pahdin?”

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cherokee Princess Grandmother

While I was dean at a south Florida university, my chief academic officer and I were invited to a high tea on Palm Beach at an exclusive club. I had never been to a high tea before and was surprised when no one was having tea. There were many potential donors there and we wanted our university to look good so wealthy people looking for a worthy charity might consider us. I got a haircut, trimmed my whiskers, donned my black suit and even wore socks to the event. (Socks are a rarity in south Florida).

My place card at the main tea table was between my boss and an extravagantly dressed and bejeweled Southern belle of about 40. She quickly discerned from my accent that she was sitting next to a fellow Southerner and conversation turned to things that interest people from our region: food, architecture, interior décor and family. We had a lovely conversation much to the pleasure of my boss. That is, until she brought up that she was doing research on her Cherokee Princess grandmother.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but I mentioned that, as Dr. Jeter, an anthropologist from the University of Arkansas, had recently written, the “My-grandmother-is-a-Cherokee-princess” myth is prevalent amongst Southerners. She looked stunned and my boss turned red. I quickly tried to recuperate by saying, “But, your grandmother may well have been one. I am not saying that.” But that did not seem to help. The lady pledged a considerable amount to our university anyway, but I got a good talking to on the trip back to campus.

My own mother told my siblings and me that our long-deceased grandmother was a Cherokee and I believed it somewhat until I spit in a tube and got my DNA results indicating that I am mainly Scandinavian with no Native American blood whatsoever. That led me to ponder what makes people want to be related to Native Americans. Could it be because of a literary stock character who is innately good because he or she has not been corrupted by civilization? Queequeg, the South Sea tribal chief of Moby Dick, is an example. The main character, Ishmael, finds Queequeg’s innate goodness so attractive that he concludes it is better to room with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. Tonto and Little Beaver are popular culture versions of the innately good uncivilized person. And, there are numerous westerns in which the female Native American, like Pocahontas, saves the day. The movie Dances With Wolves certainly contrasts the corruption of civilization with the nobility of the native.

In our region, there are many people who are genuinely descended from Native Americans. One of the finest friends I ever had, a truly noble guy called Woody, is full blood Choctaw. Many of us of predominate European lineage wish for a tad of native incorruption. I hope the lady in Palm Beach found out that her grandmother was, indeed, a Cherokee princess. I further wish that I could forget that episode in my academic history.

Monday, March 27, 2017


A long time ago, I worked for a couple of carpenters. One of my jobs was to construct frames for pouring concrete. Every time we needed a slab, I had to first build a sturdy frame, complete with strong wire to keep the sides from bulging and then lay in reinforcing rebar. When the concrete truck came, I held my breath until I was assured that the frame would hold. It always did. As soon as the concrete set, I tore down my handiwork and snipped the snag-ends of wire.

Such a frame works as a metaphor for integrity. If our “frame” or worldview is sound (well-constructed, reinforced and wired up snugly) what is poured in will adhere and set satisfactorily. In other words, integrity means having a strong framework to hold true to who we are. Without such a framework, we would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas, never satisfied with the results. For me, the Christian worldview—that God made us and has an eternal purpose for our existence—is the only satisfactory one. Without it, I would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas. We see a lot of scooping in contemporary thought. Many newspaper editorials come to mind as well as the pontification of other media gasbags.

Like Daniel of old, we live in an alien kingdom where people are put off by our worldview. If we can have discussions on a level above twitter and texting, we often find that even the scoopers have a Christian worldview imbedded so deeply as to be invisible—to them at least. It takes a lot of faith to be an atheist—faith in your own reasoning power.

Daniel did not want to eat the food of Babylon because he suspected it had been sacrificed to idols, so he worked it out that he and his friends ate only vegetables. His three friends did not want to bow down to the huge idol Nebuchadnezzar had erected because their worldview told them to bow only to the Hebrew God. They were thrown into a furnace for not bowing but came out smelling sweet. The Chaldeans worked it out with Darius to issue an irrevocable law that people could only pray to him, knowing full well that Daniel prayed openly every day facing Jerusalem. For this, he was thrown to the lions but came out unscathed. His accusers were then thrown in and they were not so fortunate.

Similarly, our Christian worldview means that we stick to our guns. But it means more than that. We should love God, love our neighbor, teach others about our faith, obey the commands of Jesus based on love, take care of the poor, widows and orphans. Micah 6:8 tells what God requires: Be merciful, love justice, walk humbly with your God. Do no harm by any word or deed; do good wherever there is need; remain attentive to the Bible; stay in love with God. This later is not easy—for me it requires fellowshipping with likeminded believers in the context of church.

Monday, March 20, 2017


Folks exhibit a primordial need to gather together occasionally. This fact was confirmed in my study of primitive peoples at Berkeley. I watched a lot of ethnographic documentaries about such gatherings, the most interesting of which concerned the Yanomami of South America. Even after groups of Yanomami fission into multiple tribes, headmen feel the need to reconnect and arrangements are made for reunions. Many of these get-togethers are highly ceremonial: warriors don fierce costumes; women display foods; children find fresh playmates; machetes and blowguns are exchanged.

I mused on this facet of human existence during the recent Jonquil Festival at Old Washington. Food vendors and trinket peddlers were joyous in their profitable work as strangers, potential customers, moiled about. I, even I, your humble columnist, moiled awhile and purchased a bamboo flute and a burger and fries. The burger reminded me of the county fair food of my youth. The mournful tone of the flute takes my imagination to some remote place, full of the throb of recollection.

Thousands of people attended the famous Old Washington event and Saturday the park was virtually clogged with all sorts and conditions of people and dogs. The poor animals had that “let-me-out-of-here” look on their sad faces. I admired their benign acceptance of bizarre human behavior.

But, what about the jonquils? It is, after all, a festival celebrating this wonderful flower. Well, there were still some left, maybe 30 percent. As you know, we have had a most unusual phase of weather in the late winter. The little yellow flowers started showing up in early February. I saw one vendor selling bulbs, but people were not flocking to buy them. I guess they know that there are old home places around with grown-over yards full of them.

Our yard still has a few, though they are browning a bit. Our house, built by the writer Claud Garner in 1918, is smack in the middle of everything and, as we sat on our screened-in porch for respite, watching the great variety of bipeds and quadrupeds stroll by, an elderly man (my age) saw us, came up our walk and said, “I’ll sit and talk to you all for a while.” He did so. We enjoyed getting acquainted, even hearing his heart about the recent passing of his wife.

Shortly, I saw a couple of professors, former colleagues, and I beckoned to them to come to the porch for a visit. It was great to see these folks again. We reconnected and solved all the problems of contemporary higher education in less than 15 minutes. Too bad no one took notes.

As the scholarly couple left, an octogenarian lady came up the walk. She had gotten separated from her convalescent group bussed in for the event and wanted to see our house. I gave her a tour.

After the festival, we went to a multiple-church supper and both my appetite and the human need to connect were cloyed. I want to be alone for a while now.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Wall

In commenting on humanity’s leanings towards exclusivity, the poet John Ciardi wrote, “Everyone in my tribe hates everyone in your tribe.” He apparently wanted to convey the idea that we group ourselves into clans of various sorts and try to keep outsiders out. Love lives in the clan, but will not go beyond it. In fact, often clans deny the humanity of those outside them.

I saw that tendency in primitive people groups while spending time with ethnographic documentaries at Berkeley. In one film, an anthropologist asked the chief of a remote tribe if he could himself participate in a tribal ceremony. The response was, “No, you are not a human being.” You see, the name of the tribe translated as “human being.” There was no way at all for an outsider to become an insider. Of course, we have seen this mindset play out in more “civilized” societies as well. It is as if we build walls to keep those who belong in IN and those who don’t OUT.

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” is about the phenomenon. I have heard people use a quotation from the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors,” as if Frost was arguing for good fences or walls. However, the poem argues just the opposite—good fences do not make good neighbors and before one builds a wall, the poet points out that he or she must consider what is being walled in or out.

“Mending Wall” is a dialogue between an apple orchardist (the narrator) and a neighbor who owns a pine forest. Every spring Mr. Pine insists that the two property owners walk the line to repair the rock wall that separates their acreage. Mr. Orchard does not see why they need a wall, seeing that neither has animals to keep in or out, and he says so. Mr. Pine, though, repeats what his father always said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost says with a wink of irony that Mr. Pine likes having thought of it so well. Actually he has not thought deeply about it at all. The poet contends that Mr. Pine will not go behind his father’s saying. That is, he will not evaluate the old saying in the light of contemporary circumstances.

Accepting old adages or aphorisms too readily without thinking through them is a problem in our day. For example, I have heard people say of a vacuous-minded acquaintance that still water runs deep. Really though, he is quiet because there is nothing going on in his head to draw from. Besides, even the saying is inaccurate, because still water does not run at all—it is still.

So, we must go behind our fathers’ sayings. We should not accept slogans or sayings too easily, no matter how longstanding. The kind of help mankind needs right now is the kind that acknowledges the commonality of our hearts. Fully aware that there is hate in our world that threatens us on every level, we cannot forget the power of love, the kind that casts out fear.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine Movie

I am so glad I took my wife to the movies for Valentine’s Day. We had a great drive to Texarkana, a wonderful movie I want to tell you about and a great dinner. Red meat is a must for me on such occasions and I got a big old steak and brought part of it home. I had a piece of it for breakfast with an egg on top, just like in the cowboy movies. But, as to that movie we saw:

Most of us like “coming of age” or “initiation” stories because we have all been there so to speak. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are such timeless tales as they convey a sense of innocence amid the sophisticated. We like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown because his naiveté bumps up against absolute evil—even in people he thought were moral leaders.

Maybe this fascination with initiation stories is what made me like the Australian-made film called Lion so much. Based upon a true story, this movie depicts the plight of a small rural boy in Northern India who gets lost, gets locked into a train and ends up on the streets of Calcutta. As he associates with other street children there, we see the terrible plight of homeless children.  At the end of the story, there is projected on the screen information showing that 80,000 children go missing in India annually. This movie individualizes the devastating problem in a deeply gripping way.

Once the child is “rescued” he is placed in a shabby and ill-administered orphanage for a while before he is adopted by a nice couple in Tasmania. Nicole Kidman deserves every acting award out there for her penetrating performance as the child’s adoptive mother. In her reserved Australian way, she conveys the heights of joy, the depths of disappointment and the quintessence of anger. I have never seen such credible acting in a movie.

Not to spoil the movie for you, I will convey that it ends happily—well, in a bittersweet way. I think the fact that it is a true story made it more poignant, but it was the initiation factor, the coming of age factor that drew me into the action and kept me there. Also, it is the first movie ever to make Google Maps a hero.

It is a story about brotherly love and about compassion triumphing over poverty. It is about the will and hardihood to survive in the face of seeming insurmountable odds. For that reason alone, it is worth far more than the price of a ticket. I was struck by the fact that Hollywood did not have much to do with this film, if anything. It was Australian made. There was no crudity, no nudity, no lasciviousness and no bad language. Hallelujah.